Exam stress is both natural and manageable

27 February 2020

For many, exam season can be very stressful. Dr Kate Joseph, a CBT Therapist based in Student Support and Wellbeing provides you with her top tips for managing stress.


Exams are stressful

Exam season is the most stressful time of year for many students. There is pressure to succeed at university coming from family, employers, peers, and most of all students themselves. Exams pose a threat both in the short-term (“what if I don’t know the answers?”) and in the long-term (“what if I don’t pass my degree and then can’t get a job?”). Two common responses to exam stress are ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’.  Flight (also known as avoidance) can involve postponing revision, if it feels too stressful, or even not going to the exam itself. Freeze refers to the stress-induced ‘mind blank’ during exams, when it is hard to think straight. Some students also get panic attacks, which involve intense physical symptoms like difficulties breathing, palpitations, and feeling sick and unsteady. Given that exam stress is detrimental to both academic progress and general wellbeing, what can be done to manage it?

Stress is natural

It is vital to acknowledge that stress is a natural part of life. Given exams are important, it is natural that they trigger anxiety. Acute stress is a way that the body prepares for action (e.g., increased heart rate and increased blood flow to the major muscles away from digestion that leads to nausea). In fact, for many tasks, a moderate degree of some stress can help people to focus, feel energised, and get things done (e.g. playing sport and meeting deadlines).

Stress is manageable

The good news is that once you start to accept that exam stress is natural, then you can start to manage it. Here are four tips to get started.

Tip 1 - Talk to someone

It is healthy to share your experience of exam stress to get perspective and work out ways forward. You may benefit from tips on study skills and trying out a different way of revising (e.g. a more active revision style, revising with a course mate, or in the library rather than at home). You may also be eligible for reasonable adjustments if you have a particular mental or physical health difficulty (you can contact UCL Student Support and Wellbeing to discuss this, but please note deadlines are in place for applications). Or, you may be able to develop new ways of managing stress (see Tips 3 and 4).

Tip 2 - Take regular study breaks

During revision, are you taking regular study breaks? Although students often feel guilty when they stop working before exams, regular breaks can actually improve focus, sleep, and productivity. Are you constantly distracted by your smartphone? Research shows that having your phone near you reduces focus, even if you don’t check it. Try moving your phone to another room when you are studying and then get up to check it during your planned break.

Tip 3 - Try mindfulness to calm your mind

Mindfulness can help people to slow down and calm down. It involves paying attention to the present moment without getting caught up in self-criticism and worries. It is linked to reductions in stress, anxiety and depression, and improvements in sleep and focus. A great way to start is to try being mindful during daily activities, e.g., by paying close attention to all five senses while brushing your teeth or drinking a cup of tea.

Tip 4 - Look after yourself

Consider how you are sleeping, eating, and living. To get through the exam period, you need to look after your body to maximise your mind’s capacity to process and retain information. What would you advise a good friend who was feeling stressed during exam period? Are you eating fresh food and getting fresh air? Make one small change to treat yourself more like you would treat a friend!

For more evidence-based information on understanding stress and tips on how to manage it, you may want to read the new Pocket Study Skills guide to Managing Stress by Dr Kate Joseph and Chris Irons. It was written specifically for students and is based on ideas from Compassion Focused Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Dr Kate Joseph, CBT Therapist, Student Psychological Services, UCL Student Support and Wellbeing